PORTLAND—If win-loss records and place in the standings didn’t suggest how razor thin was the margin between the Cheverus and Sanford field hockey teams, Wednesday afternoon’s regular season ending contest clinched it.
With the No. 2 seed for the upcoming playoffs at stake, the host Stags fell behind 1-0 in the first half, but scored twice in the second half to appear to take control. Then, with 6:24 to play, the Redskins pulled even, forced overtime and there, earned a hard-fought victory when Caroline L’Heureux banged home a rebound with 23 seconds to go in the first overtime period.
As a result, Sanford winds up 12-1-1 and will be second to Scarborough for the playoffs, while Cheverus finishes 12-2 and third.
“Honestly, we’re excited to go to playoffs,” said Stags coach Amy McMullin. “Last year, we went in No. 4. We faced some strong teams and we ended up going to states. I’m a strong believer that in the playoffs, anything can happen. It doesn’t really matter where you go, as long as you get in there.”
After its surprise run to the Class A Final (a 3-0 loss to Skowhegan) a year ago, Cheverus lost several top players to graduation and was expected to somewhat come back to the back in 2011. Instead, the Stags won their first eight contests (by a composite 28-4 margin) before losing at Scarborough, 2-1. Cheverus then captured its next four entering Wednesday’s contest.
Sanford, long a top Western A contender, didn’t qualify for the playoffs in 2010, but has returned to form this autumn. The Redskins won their first five games, then let a 2-0 lead slip away in a 2-2 tie at Scarborough. After three more wins, Sanford dropped a 1-0 home decision to Massabesic before taking three straight entering Wednesday.
Last year, the Stags won at Sanford, 2-1. They almost won again by that score this time around, but the Redskins had the last laugh.
Play was even for the first 10 minutes before the visitors simply took over.
Sanford had six unanswered penalty corners in the first half and finally, with 10:30 to go before halftime, L’Heureux scored for a 1-0 lead.
The Redskins came out hot again in the second half, but momentum turned with 27:20 to go in regulation when Cheverus sophomore goalie Libby DesRuisseaux made a superb stick save on Stacy Livingston’s blast that appeared ticketed for the cage and a 2-0 advantage.
The Stags then transitioned to offense and with 26:11 to go, pulled even as sophomore Alex Logan set up junior Emily Rodrigue, who shot past Redskins goalie Sarah Stanley.
Cheverus went ahead with 9:25 remaining off a penalty corner as senior captain Ali Saxton scored from junior Brooke Flaherty to make it 2-1.
It appeared as if the Stags were going to escape with the win, but Sanford didn’t buckle.
With 6:24 left in regulation, Laura Bouchard set up Libby Griffin and Griffin scored to tie the score.
The game would go to overtime and while both teams had chances, the Redskins managed to end it.
In the first eight-minute “sudden victory” overtime session (teams play up to two and the game is recorded as a tie if no one scores), Cheverus had a great chance early, but senior Sarah LaQuerre shot wide. With three minutes left, the Stags earned back-to-back penalty corners (they finished with an 11-9 advantage), but couldn’t score.
Sanford finally ended it as it put pressure on the goal.
A shot came from the side that a sprawling DesRuisseaux managed to deflect, but the ball came to L’Heureux and she wouldn’t be denied, banging home the rebound for a 3-2 triumph.
“I’m so overwhelmed,” said L’Heureux. “It was a great finish. I saw that (the ball) got caught in (the goalie’s) pads a little bit. I watched because I know I can’t hit her. The second it hit the ground, I used all my anger and shot it and it went in. They beat us last year and my freshman year, they beat us in the playoffs and I missed a goal by ‘this much.’
“This was huge. It was tough because we lost our momentum, but the biggest goal was by Libby who scored to make it 2-2. Without her, we wouldn’t have been in overtime. We knew we had to gain momentum or it would be over.”
“Caroline’s come alive in the second half of the season,” said longtime Sanford coach Diana Walker. “She’s double teamed, but she gets stronger and gets more confidence. When teams key on her, the other kids who have scored all along will get their chance.
“I thought we had our domination at different times. I was hoping we’d get into overtime since we have a little more speed. It’s the type of game you want just before the tournament. You want a game you have to work for. These are the types of games we’re going to have.”
Cheverus quickly put the loss in perspective.
“It’s a good thing for us, to regroup,” McMullin said. “It was a very good game. We fought hard. I thought we were very lucky to come out of the first half only down one. We played great in overtime. We just had the one breakdown. We had way more chances, we just didn’t convert. It’s something to focus on and to learn from. It’s frustrating because we had one defensive breakdown after another today and that’s when they scored. It’s things we’ve been working on. Carrying the ball in the circle and not just dishing it. When you dish it, they get it back and score.”
While the Heal Points weren’t final as of Wednesday night, it appears that Sanford will meet the winner of Saturday’s preliminary round contest between No. 7 Portland (9-4-1) and No. 10 Thornton Academy (6-8) in the quarterfinals Tuesday of next week. The Redskins didn’t face the Bulldogs this year. They edged the visiting Golden Trojans, 2-1, Sept. 12.
Sanford looks forward to the challenge.
“We don’t have anything to lose at this point,” said L’Heureux.
“It’s going to be anybody’s game,” added Walker. “You have to be on in the playoffs this year since the teams are so even. The (Scarborough tie) gave us confidence. We know we let up a little bit and gave it back to them. The kids like the turf. We hope to get a chance to play on it.”
Cheverus will also play Tuesday against either No. 6 Westbrook (10-4) or No. 11 Kennebunk (6-8). The Stags didn’t play the Blue Blazes this year. They just edged the Rams, 1-0, in a game played at the University of New England, this past Friday.
“At this point, I’m ready to take on anybody,” McMullin said. “We’d love to see (Sanford) again. It’s hard to finish the season on a loss, but we’re 12-2 and we need to be proud of the fact we’re 12-2.”